For many people, the idea of the American Dream is fading. According to Hearth Insights’ 2017 State of the American Dream report, less than 1 in 5 Americans feel they are living the dream of owning a home, starting a family, and working in a fulfilling career. About 50% of Americans feel they will not achieve any part of the American Dream.
Despite this, as of 2017, 46% of Americans feel they are on the way to achieving the American Dream, compared with 17% that believe it is out of reach. The way the American Dream is defined has changed a bit, in that more Americans feel that having the freedom to choose how to live, having a good family life, and retiring comfortably are more important than being wealthy, having a successful career, and owning a home.
It was not so long ago that the American Dream revolved around securing a good job, working your way up the corporate ladder, raising a healthy family, owning your own home, and retiring with enough money to maintain your standard of living and to leave something in your will. The idea of the American Dream was one of social mobility and elevation—that people could find success if they just worked hard enough.
To help illustrate this concept, Stacker looked at the biographies of the chief executive officers of the 50 largest public companies in the United States to understand how they succeeded. The stories of these CEOs are as varied as the people themselves. Some, for example, created the product that they now preside over. Others are lawyers or executives brought in to correct problems in the C-suite. Most, however, started in entry-level positions and worked their way up. The companies on our list are the top 50 on the S&P 500.
With wage disparity becoming a growing issue in this country and with most Americans refusing to believe in rags-to-riches stories, it is important to note that most of the CEOs profiled on our list did not come from wealthy families. Access is one of the largest drivers of social mobility; sometimes, the difference between a poor man and a rich man is that someone gave the rich man a chance to prove himself.
Read on to find out which CEO actually resents being the head of his own company.
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- Company market cap: $109.9 billion
Before helming Broadcom, Tan Hack Eng served as managing director of Hume Industries. From there, he was head of Pac-Van Investment. After working in several financial and C-suite positions at various companies, Tan was selected as CEO of Integrated Circuit Systems. Integrated Device Technology would buy Integrated Circuit Systems, only to become Avago in a buyout, to finally merge with Broadcom. Tan remained the head of each company during the transitions.
- Company market cap: $110.6 billion
Marc Casper started his career as a strategy consultant for Bain & Company. He would eventually join Bain Capital before becoming the Americas president of Dade Behring Inc. He then moved on to be president and CEO of Kendro Laboratories before joining Thermo Fisher Scientific as its president of the Life Science section of Thermo Electron in 2001. He worked his way up and assumed the title of president and CEO in 2009.
- Company market cap: $111.6 billion
Lance Fritz started his career working at Fiskars Inc., Cooper Industries, and General Electric. Fritz’s first position with Union Pacific was as vice president and general manager for energy in Union Pacific’s marketing and sales department. He moved up to executive vice president for operations and vice president for labor relations before becoming company president in 2014.
- Company market cap: $114.6 billion
Richard Templeton’s career started at Texas Instruments, where he worked his way up in various areas of the company. He would take the reins of the company’s semiconductors sector in 1996 before becoming the chief operating officer in 2000. In 2004, Templeton became CEO, and in 2008, he became the company’s chairman of the board of directors.
- Company market cap: $114.8 billion
Polish-born Darius Adamczyk started out as an electrical engineer for General Electric before moving on to Booz Allen Hamilton, Ingersoll-Rand, and Metrologic. At Metrologic, he would reach the position of CEO before Honeywell bought the company in 2008. At Honeywell, he would join the C-suite as president of Honeywell Process Solutions and later president and CEO of Honeywell Performance Materials and Technologies. Adamczyk became CEO in 2018.
- Company market cap: $115.6 billion
Andre Calantzopoulos started his career as a business development analyst in Philip Morris International’s Business Development Department. An odd choice, perhaps, as Calantzopoulos has an electrical engineering degree and studied robotics. After two years, he transitioned to the Area Operations Department. From there, he became a senior executive for PMI in central Europe. In 1999, Calantzopoulos, who was born in Greece, became president of PMI’s Eastern European region, and in 2002, he was named president of the entire company. In 2008, he became chief operating officer, and in 2013, CEO.
- Company market cap: $116.2 billion
Kevin Johnson started his career as an engineer for IBM. In 1992, he joined Microsoft as an executive and would eventually be named president of the Windows and Online Services division. In 2008, Johnson moved to Juniper Networks as CEO. In 2013, he announced his retirement and was succeeded in 2014. Following Howard Schultz’s announcement that he would retire as Starbucks CEO, Johnson—a board member—was chosen to take on the role.
- Company market cap: $117.6 billion
Virginia “Ginni” Rometty started off in 1981 as a systems engineer for IBM. She worked her way up, becoming the head of global sales, marketing, and strategy, before she was general manager of the Global Services division. After working to negotiate and facilitate the purchase and integration of PricewaterhouseCoopers IT consultancy, she was invited to the C-suite, ultimately being named CEO in 2012.
- Company market cap: $124.4 billion
Before joining Amgen, Robert Bradway was a health care industry investment banker with Morgan Stanley. He became the London managing director in 2001. Bradway joined Amgen as a vice president in 2006 and became an executive vice president and chief financial officer in 2007. He joined the board of directors in 2011, became president in 2010, and was named CEO in 2012.
- Company market cap: $126.5 billion
Daniel Schulman’s career started with AT&T, where he was an account manager. He worked for the company for more than 18 years, eventually joining its Operations Group. He became president and CEO of Priceline.com, and from there was invited by Richard Branson to be the founding CEO of Virgin Mobile USA. Next, he headed Sprint’s Prepaid group until he joined the executive team of American Express. In 2014, he became the CEO of PayPal.
- Company market cap: $127.7 billion
Reed Hastings’s first job was as a programmer with Adaptive Technology. He left in 1991 to form his own company, Pure Software. That company merged with Atria Software in 1996, followed by a second merger with Rational Software in 1997. Hastings spent a short time as the new company’s chief technical officer before leaving. In 1997, he co-founded Netflix with Marc Randolph.
- Company market cap: $129.5 billion
Walter Jelinek started his career with the membership department store Gemco, which was in business from 1959 to 1986. He then became operations manager for the Los Angeles division of Fed-Mart before joining Costco in 1984. Over the next 25 years, he worked his way up the executive ladder at Costco and became CEO in 2011.
- Company market cap: $130.8 billion
Mark Parker’s career has been exclusively with Nike. In 1979, he joined the company as a footwear designer. He worked his way up to vice president of global footwear, which he became in 1998. In 2001, he was named co-president of the Nike brand, where he continued to design shoes and managed Nike’s portfolio brands, such as Converse. He became CEO in 2012.
- Company market cap: $132.3 billion
Before joining Accenture, Julie Sweet was a partner in the corporate department of Cravath, Swaine & Moore. She joined Accenture in 2010 as general counsel, secretary, and chief compliance officer. In 2015, she became CEO of Accenture North America and was named CEO of Accenture September 2019.
- Company market cap: $133.2 billion
Marc Benioff is the founder and CEO of Salesforce.com. At age 15, Benioff founded Liberty Software, which made games for the Atari 8-bit computer; he used royalties from his games to pay for college. He join Oracle’s customer service department after college on the recommendation of his professors. He remained at Oracle for 13 years, eventually reaching the role of vice president, before leaving to start Salesforce.
- Company market cap: $137.0 billion
Shantanu Narayen started his career at Apple. He moved on to Silicon Graphics, where the native of India became director of desktop and collaboration products. He co-founded the digital photo-sharing company Pictra. He joined Adobe in 1998 as senior vice president for worldwide product research and became CEO in 2007.
- Company market cap: $140.9 billion
Michael Corbat joined Citigroup after graduating from college in 1983. He worked his way up to become CEO Citi Holdings, which is the holding company of Citigroup’s auxiliary businesses. He became CEO of Citigroup in 2012.
- Company market cap: $144.8 billion
Omar Ishrak became CEO of Medtronic in 2011. Before joining Medtronic, the Bangladesh native worked as a product developer and engineer at Philips Ultrasonic. He would move to a leadership position at Diasonics/Vingmed and would join General Electric as a senior vice president. There, he worked his way up to president and CEO of GE Healthcare Systems.
- Company market cap: $148.9 billion
Miles White started his career as a consultant at McKinsey & Co. He joined Abbott in 1984, working in management and climbing his way up to CEO in 1998. He is one of the longest-serving CEOs on the S&P 100.
- Company market cap: $165.6 billion
British-born Stephen Easterbrook started as an accountant with Price Waterhouse before joining McDonald’s as a manager in London in 1993. In 2011, he became CEO of PizzaExpress, followed by taking over as CEO of Wagamama. He returned to McDonald’s as the head of the country’s British and northern European division. He became CEO in 2015.
- Company market cap: $173.3 billion
Mark Hurd was CEO of Hewlett-Packard before becoming Oracle’s top executive. He started his career at NCR Corp., spending 25 years there that culminated as CEO. Hurd became CEO of Hewlett-Packard after the forced resignation of Carly Fiorina in 2005.
- Company market cap: $189 billion
Ramon Laguarta started his career at Chupa Chups, a Spanish candy maker. He joined PepsiCo’s European division in 1996, eventually taking over the European and Sub-Saharan Africa sector. The native of Spain became the company’s president in 2017 and CEO in 2018.
- Company market cap: $194 billion
Albert Bourla is a doctor of veterinarian medicine who also holds a doctorate in the biotechnology of reproduction. In 1993, he joined Pfizer as a technical director for Greece in the animal health division. He would eventually join Pfizer Global Headquarters in 2001 as the U.S. Group marketing director for animal health. In 2006, he worked his way up to area president of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Bourla became CEO January 2019.
- Company market cap: $198.9 billion
Brian Roberts went to work for Comcast immediately after graduating from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He became president of the company in 1990 and oversaw its acquisition of NBC Universal. He personally controls 33.3% of the company’s voting right.
- Company market cap: $200.3 billion
C. Allen Parker was a partner at the law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore before becoming general counsel for Wells Fargo. He became CEO and president in 2019 upon the retirement of Timothy J. Sloan. In 1983, he was a law clerk for Amalya Kearse, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals Second Circuit.
- Company market cap: $200.6 billion
Charles Robbins started at North Carolina National Bank as an application developer. He moved on to Wellfleet Communications after five years. He joined Cisco in 1997 and worked in various executive roles before becoming CEO in 2015.
- Company market cap: $202.6 billion
Dennis Muilenburg started at Boeing in 1985 as an intern. He held various management and engineering positions, including involvement in the YAL-1 747 Airborne Laser and Condor recon aircraft projects. In 2015, Muilenburg took over as CEO.
- Company market cap: $202.8 billion
Robert Swan (not to be confused with the polar explorer of the same name) started his career at General Electric, where he served in several senior finance roles during his 15 years with the company. He worked as CFO, COO, and CEO of Webvan Group and as CFO of Electronic Data Systems and TRW. He was CFO at eBay before becoming an operating partner with General Atlantic in 2015. Swan joined Intel in 2016 and became CEO in January 2019.
- Company market cap: $215.5 billion
Before joining UnitedHealth in 1998, David Wichmann was a partner at Arthur Andersen. He worked his way up to the chief financial officer at UnitedHealth in 2011 and became CEO in 2017.
- Company market cap: $221.4 billion
After graduating from Harvard Law School, Kenneth Fraser joined Drinker Biddle & Reath, where he defended death row inmate James Willie Cochran. He joined Merck & Co.—one of his law firm’s clients—as a public affairs division general counsel in 1992. In 1999, he became senior general counsel, and then an executive vice president in 2006. He moved on to president in 2010, and CEO in 2011. He’s the first African American to head a major U.S. drug company.
- Company market cap: $221.8 billion
Michael Wirth joined Chevron in 1982. Before becoming CEO in 2018, Wirth worked as president for global supply and trading from 2003 to 2006 and as executive vice president for downstream and chemicals from 2006 to 2015.
- Company market cap: $235.7 billion
British-born James Quincey started his career at Bain & Co. He joined Coca-Cola in 1996, and oversaw oversee the acquisition of Mexico’s Juego de Valle and served as president of Coca-Cola’s Europe Group. In 2015, he became the company’s COO and then CEO in 2016.
- Company market cap: $239.7 billion
Hans Vestberg started his career working at Ericsson Cables from 1991 to 2016. He filled management positions in Latin America, Europe, and the United States, and became the first CEO of Ericsson who was not an engineer. Vestberg, who was born in Sweden, was ousted in 2016. In 2017, he joined Verizon as chief technology officer and executive vice president for network and technology. He became CEO in 2018.
- Company market cap: $244.2 billion
After graduating from Michigan State University in 1979, Craig Menear worked for several retailers, including Montgomery Ward, Ikea, and Builder’s Emporium. Menear joined Home Depot in 1997, eventually becoming executive vice president of merchandising in 2007. He became CEO in 2014.
- Company market cap: $246 billion
After graduating from Ithaca College in 1973, Robert Iger went to work for ABC. He was named head of ABC Entertainment in 1989, and head of the ABC Network Television Group in 1993. In 1994, Iger became COO of Capital Cities/ABC, ABC’s corporate parent. When Disney purchased Capital Cities/ABC in 1996, Iger was kept on as the new subsidiary’s president. In 1999, Iger became president of Walt Disney International and chairman of the ABC Group. Iger then was president and COO of Disney in 2000 and became CEO after Michael Eisner’s ouster in 2005.
- Company market cap: $249.9 billion
After graduating from the University of Notre Dame Law School, Brian Moynihan joined Edwards & Angell LLP. From there, he worked at FleetBoston in 1993 as a deputy general counsel. He became executive vice president in 1999 and president of global wealth and investment management for Bank of America in 2004 when Bank of America and FleetBoston merged. He became CEO of Bank of America in 2010.
- Company market cap: $255.5 billion
Randall Stephenson started with Southwestern Bell telephone in 1982. He worked in finance, culminating with being named CFO in 2001. In 2003, he became chairman of the board of directors for Cingular Wireless and COO for Southwestern Bell in 2004. Upon AT&T’s acquisition of Southwestern Bell, Stephenson stayed on as COO and then became CEO in 2007.
- Company market cap: $282.3 billion
Indian-born Ajaypal Banga started his career with Nestle in 1981. After 13 years, he joined PepsiCo and helped with the launch of Yum! Brands’ international franchises in India, where he was born. He joined Citigroup before moving on to Mastercard. Banga became CEO of Mastercard in 2010.
- Company market cap: $286.4 billion
Darren Woods joined Exxon in 1992. Over the next 24 years, he worked his way up the corporate ladder. With the nomination of then-CEO Rex Tillerson to be U.S. secretary of state, Woods became CEO in 2016.
- Company market cap: $303.8 billion
David Taylor is another executive who has spent his entire professional life at the company he now heads. Starting as a production manager in 1980, he served in the product supply division for the next 10 years, managing operations at various plants. He continued to climb the corporate ladder, becoming CEO in 2015.
- Company market cap: $321.8 billion
Carl Douglas McMillon first joined Walmart in 1984 as a summer associate while still a teenager, unloading trucks at a distribution center. While earning his MBA, McMillon returned to the company as an assistant manager at a store in Tulsa, Okla. Upon completing his degree, he moved to Bentonville to train to be a buyer at the corporate headquarters. He became general merchandise manager for Costco before becoming an executive in 2005 as president and CEO of Sam’s Club. McMillon took over Walmart’s international business in 2009 and was named CEO of the corporation in 2014.
- Company market cap: $339.6 billion
Alex Gorsky started his professional life as a sales associate for Belgium-based Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceutica in 1988. He became president of Janssen in 2001 and company group chairman for Johnson & Johnson pharmaceuticals for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. He left Johnson & Johnson temporarily to work for Novartis Pharmaceuticals, before returning in 2008. He became CEO in 2012.
- Company market cap: $341.5 billion
Jamie Dimon first worked at American Express as an assistant after graduating from Harvard Business School. With his mentor Sandy Weill, he left American Express to take over Commercial Credit, serving as CFO. Commercial Credit would become Citigroup through a series of mergers and acquisitions. Dimon was asked to resign in 1998 and he became CEO of Bank One in 2000 and COO of JPMorgan Chase when the two companies merged in 2004. In 2005, he became CEO.
- Company market cap: $354.5 billion
Alfred Kelly Jr. started his career with PepsiCo in strategic planning in 1981. He worked for the Reagan White House as manager of information systems between 1985 and 1987. He joined American Express in 1987, where he worked his way up to being president. He served as CEO of Intersection before becoming CEO of Visa in 2016.
- Company market cap: $491.3 billion
While it might be romantic to think that Warren Buffett did something else before buying Berkshire Hathaway, the truth is that he has always been an investor. When he bought into Berkshire Hathaway, it was a textile manufacturer. Instead of selling it back to the original owners at a profit, Buffett held on to the company because he felt insulted on the offer price. He later would state that buying and holding on to Berkshire Hathaway was a mistake, as it cost him an estimated return of $200 billion.
- Company market cap: $518.6 billion
Mark Zuckerberg is the founder and CEO of Facebook. He has had no other jobs. Originally starting as a website he created in 2004 named “Thefacebook,” Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard in his sophomore year to complete and pursue the project.
- Company market cap: $813.9 billion
Sundar Pichai started in engineering and product management at Applied Materials and as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company before joining Google in 2004. Before being named CEO in 2015, Pichai, who was born in India, was involved in the product management of several Google products, including Chrome and Chrome OS.
- Company market cap: $872.7 billion
Jeff Bezos is the founder and CEO of Amazon.com. Unlike other founders on this list, Bezos has business credentials outside of his creation. After graduating from Princeton, he worked for the FinTech telecommunications firm Fitel, where he eventually became head of development and director of customer service. From there, he was a product manager at Bankers Trust. He went on to work as a senior vice president for the hedge fund manager D.E. Shaw & Co. He quit in 1994 to commit himself full time to Amazon.com.
- Company market cap: $928.8 billion
Tim Cook has the unenviable position of being CEO of Apple after the death of its iconic leader Steve Jobs. Chief operating officer of Apple under Jobs, Cook has worked at Apple since 1998, when he joined as senior vice president for worldwide operations. Cook started his professional career at IBM in 1982, where he worked in the personal computer section and eventually became director of North American fulfillment. He later was COO of computer reseller Intelligent Electronics and vice president for corporate materials at Compaq. Cook is the first Fortune 500 CEO to come out publicly as gay.
- Company market cap: $1035.1 billion
Satya Nadella worked for Sun Microsystems before joining Microsoft in 1992. Before his promotion to CEO in 2014, the native of India worked on Microsoft’s cloud infrastructure and cloud computing solutions. Nadella is the third CEO in the history of the company, following Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer.
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